The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.

While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.

Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.

Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.

Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.

In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...

During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.

Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.

Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.

The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.

Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.

Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.

Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

20th Century Stereo Viewers

20th Century Stereo Viewers

Remember the View-Master you had as a kid? Check out all the hundreds of cool-looking variations you never knew exi… [read review or visit site]

View-Master Resource

View-Master Resource

While many people think of View-Masters as toys, Eddie Bowers, who runs View-Master Resource, clearly considers the… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Tabletop Stereoscope For Restoration Stereo ViewerView Master World Travel Pictures Reel Envelope Booklet Sawyer Gaf Packet Lot 30Vintage 1984 Dune~gift Set~viewmasterVintage Keystone #40 3d Stereo Viewer Stereoscope, 6 Sets Of Viewing CardsView Master Disney Pictures Reel Lot Princess 101 Dalmations Sesame Street LotLot Vintage Talking View-master 3-d Reels Rudolph Jungle Book Disney Christmas Rare Black Boxed Bakelite Bulgarian Stereo Viewer & 3 Slides As Listing S090. Vintage: Sawyers 21 View-master Lost In Space / 3 Slides & Booklet (1967)The White Stripes Happy New Year 2004 Concert Promo Viewmaster Keychain MintVintage Boxed Gaf View-master, With 8 Disks/discs Including WomblesGaf View-master Viewer In Original Box With Original Sample ReelVintage Lot Of 6 *view Master Packets (18 Reels)* Star Trek, Spiderman, Hulk..++Viewmaster Lot #21 13 Reels Southwest Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Carlsbad CavernsVintage Viewmaster Plus Reels..disneyland, Star Trek, Batman, Lost In Space, ++ Huge Lot Of 15 Packets Of Viewmaster Reels Sawyers Gaf Ireland Apollo Kauai MauiUn Boxed Excellent Sandoz Stereo Viewer With Minor Optical Adjustment Lens Vintage View-master & 50 Plus Reels Cartoons, Disneyland, Walt Disney, Kids ShowViewmaster Lot #20 12 Reels Wyoming, Montana, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, GlacierGaf View-master James Bond Live And Let Die 3 Reel Set With BookletView Master 3d Focusing Viewer 1950's1905 Kevuko Stereo Viewer Stereoscope With 8 Real Photo Stereoview Cards120210.huge Lot 5 Vintage Of View Master Reels... - Star Trek Still SealedGaf View-master James Bond Live And Let Die 3 Reel Set In Original Blister PackCars, Shrek Iii, Dora, New View-master SetsViewmaster Vintage 70's Reels Lot (12): Moon Landing, Rescuers, Superman +Vintage Working Gaf Talking View Master W/ 15 Reels & 3 BookletsVintage Sawyer View Master Reel Lot - 23 Reels W/ Original Envelopes!!Lot Of 15 Viewmaster Packets Of Rees Reel Packet Nations Of The World SeriesLot Of 24 View-master Reels Gaf View Master Walt Disney Character Theatre Stock # 2425 19 Reels Un Boxed Excellent Stereomat East German Stereo Viewer Grey//white Eye Peices1998 Mattel View Master Super Show Projector & Flashlight Boys & Girls 3 & UpAntique Stereo Viewer Underwood & Underwood Sun Sculpture +39 Cards Pat. 1901Vintage View-master 3-d & 5 Packs + Cartoons Ren & Stempy Taz Bugs Tweety MickeyVintage Mecca Gaf Viewmaster 3 Reels Packet B228 Famous Cities Series View-master & 34 Reels Huge Lot Of 78 View Master Assorted Reels Red Riding Hood Batman Disney Europe+ 1975 Viewmaster Good Guys Gift Pak Batman Superman Wonderwoman Aquaman Gaf Reel Petzl Zoom/duo Mes E10 Screw Cree Led Bulb Lamp Head Torch Viewmaster 3v 4.5v 6vNice Original Boxed Excellent East German Red/white Maliscop Stereo ViewerAmerican Radex Stereo Viewer Made Late 60s + 18 View Cards Childrens Stories Gaf Viewmaster Reels: 60's Lost In Space Tv Show 'perfect Condition'Vintage Cambodia Sawyers Gaf Viewmaster 3 Reels Packet B249Disneyland Tomorrowland Gaf - Viewmaster Packet A 179 - Three Reel SetCastles Of Europe Viewmaster Reels B146View-master Lot 37 Tan Style Reels Animals Harry Potter States Christmas DisneyFisher-price N1517 View - Master Discovery Learning Sounds ProjectorVintage Viewmaster Reels Lot Television Series (7) 1960's, 1970'sPopeye View MasterView-master Viewer 2002 With 17 Assorted Discs Winnie-the-pooh Nemo Winx ClubDisney View Master Nib Gift Set 3d Viewer, 5 Reels & A Storage Case! Ages 3+Hallmark Keepsake 2008 View-master Christmas OrnamentLot Of 24 View-master Reels AViewmaster Lot #33 3 Vintage Sawyer's Viewers, One In Box, LightedThe Brady Bunch Gaf View-master 3 Reel Set B 568 With BookletView-master Album For 3-d Discs With 22 Reels 1953 Royalty Topography ViewmasterVintage Kansas City Missouri Gaf Viewmaster 3 Reels Packet A454Vintage Islands Of Greece Gaf Viewmaster 3 Reels Packet B207 Gaf Viewmaster Reels: 60's Star Trek Tv Show - 'near Mint Condition'Vintage El Paso Juarez Texas Gaf Viewmaster 3 Reels Packet A421